My favourite books of 2017

No need to explain. Perhaps just my usual proviso: Not all of these books were actually published in 2017, because I mostly just read old books, and I don't get around to new ones till they are no longer fashionable.

1. The Aimer Gate by Alan Garner (1978) - I didn't even know about Alan Garner till this year, when I started to see him mentioned on interesting websites connected to the 50th anniversary of his most famous book, The Owl Service. I was at Hay on Wye in September and I thought I would try to find some of his books. The first shop I went into had a little stash and I bought them all, and this is the first book off the pile I read. It blew my mind. I had no idea what to expect, but it certainly wasn't this sparse, elegant, poetic little book that I read in one hour. I am still not completely sure what is going on here, though I read that it is actually part of an experimental quartet that explores changes in time and questions of ancestry in a small Cheshire village over a thousand years. This one is set during the First World War. It was incredible, and, as a writer, I found it transformative. Do people still write books like this, I wonder? I hope they do. I want everyone to read this.

2. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett (2008) - It's almost a cheat listing an Alan Bennett book as he is such a pleasure to read that it seems almost like not bothering. But this is such a lovely and charming little book (another 2-hour read) that I can't believe it has taken me this long to read it. A must for any kind of book lover, and a great one for Royalists (though I thought Bennett wasn't one?). The Queen discovers a mobile library behind Buckingham Palace and then develops a real taste for reading, guided by her gay manservant. Great to read just before you watch the second series of The Crown, which is exactly what I did.

3. The Lightworker Oracle by Alana Fairchild (2017) - OK, I know it's not really a book, though it contains a beautifully written guidebook and it is printed material that requires reading, so I am willing to count it. I am a great user of Oracle Cards - I do a spread every morning, and I always consult them when I have questions or challenges. Alana Fairchild is someone whose work I greatly admire - a real Australian Wise Woman, and one of the great spiritual teachers of the 21st century, I think. This exquisite oracle deck is intended for those people who might characterise themselves as "those who love the light," people who are interested in spirituality, wonder and mystery. That's me. And I had an instant response to these cards, so much so that I couldn't put them down and carried them around with me everywhere, even overseas. Superbly illustrated and filled with wonderful ideas, inspirations and guidance, if this is your kind of thing make it a gift for yourself. Or give them o a spiritually-minded friend, who will thank you forever.

4. Rural Liberties by Neal Drinnan (2017) - Australian novelist Neal Drinnan has been writing for years (I read my first novel of his almost 20 years ago while I was studying in Vietnam) and his skills as a writer are, by now, extremely well-developed. This is a high camp, rather sexy, and very funny romp through small-town Australia examining the corrosive effects of reality television and the empty desire for fame that seems to characterise the early 21st century. Drinnan's rural Australian strugglers are masterfully drawn, and every word of his book seems true. Great fun, and deserves to be better known.

5. Bringing in the Sheaves by The Reverend Richard Coles (2016) - had you asked me in 1984 if my current pop star crush would end up being an Anglican clergyman 30 years later I would have scoffed - indeed, even threatened violence. But it has thus come to pass, and it turns out that 30 years can render all of us quite different people. And I'm not just talking body weight. The Rev. Richard Coles was the more musical half of The Communards, the band that made life just that little bit more bearable for sad little gay boys in country towns it the mid-80s. I always liked his dorky, bespectacled aesthetic. Now he is all grown up and is a village parson and writes lovely, reflective works of memoir that are quite Edwardian in scope and the sort of thing I image A. C. Benson would have written had times been different. A lovely insight into what it is  to be a clergyman in the 21st century with a wild and even scandalous sort of past behind you. A terrific read, and lots of fun.

6. The Way of the Traveler by Joseph Dispenza (2002) - I have actually dipped into  this book many times, and used its tips and advice on many trips. But this is the first time I have actually sat down and read the thing from cover to cover, and I found it immensely helpful and even life-changing. Basically it is a book on how to travel better and to make each trip a more profound, beautiful and inspiring experience. Immensely helpful to anyone who likes to travel, it is essential reading before you embark on any really big trip. Filled with practical advice and new ways of looking at the world, it is a unique and unexpected book that will really take you to interesting places.

7. The Ancestral Continuum by Natalia O'Sullivan and Nicola Graydon (2013) - This fascinating book was recommended to me by my friend and mentor Maggie Hamilton, who is strongly interested in this kind of ancestral work. I read it almost as soon as she recommended it, and I came away moved and, in many ways, confirmed in my own ideas of the importance of honouring our ancestors no matter who or where we are. Since reading this I have changed the way I work and the way I look at my life. I am much more interested now in honouring our cultural ancestors, and in seeing how my own family ancestors have had a hand in molding the life I live now. Practical, extremely thought-provoking and something that I think will grow to be of increasing importance in our world.

8. Flowerpaedia by Cheralyn Darcey (2017) - I have always been kind of obsessed by flowers. My beloved late grandmother  planted a bed of green zinnias for me when I was about 6 and this forever cemented my interest. When I was a younger man, I even considered becoming a florist, and at one stage of my life I was very interested in psychic flower readings when I regularly attended the Spiritualist church in Enmore. Cheralyn Darcey, a wonderfully flower-like character herself, has become the expert on flowers and their meanings in Australia, and I have always adored her work, This little encyclopaedia of flower meanings is an invaluable aide to any gardener or flower lover.

9. Walsingham Way by Colin Stephenson (1970)  - This year I took my parents to visit Walsingham, the English Marian shrine in Norfolk. It has been a dream of mine to visit there for perhaps 25 yeas, and I was completely captivated by the place. I would even consider living there. It was so holy, so beautiful and so completely other-worldly. My father said it felt like an episode of Doctor Who, and there is some truth in that. At the gift shop in the centre of town I bought a copy of this book , never expecting it to be such a rollicking good read. It is a complete history of the shrine at Walsingham, especially concentrating on its restoration in the modern era. Gossipy, inspiring, and endlessly fascinating, this is essential reading for anyone interested in Bristish history, Marian devotion and High Anglicanism. I never wanted it to end!

The Courage to Continue Writing - A Checklist

Walter Mason on writing retreat in Tibet

Last night I was at Sutherland Library talking to a lovely group of people about what it means to keep writing even when we want to give up. I was speaking from experience, and I drew on my own recent "dry" period in order to provide them with some examples and methods that might help them keep going, even through the hard times.

Here are the main points I covered, and a handy list of what you can and should do when you feel like you want to give up on writing:

1. Create or join a writing group. Big or small doesn't matter. My own writing group is 3 people and it works perfectly. I was always sceptical about the efficacy of writing groups, but I have found that having one works. Try to make sure that everyone in it is serious about what they are doing and use competitiveness to your advantage. Encourage them to make you feel guilt about not producing.

2. Connect with nature. Walk out into your garden every day with your bare feet. As writers we can become disembodied – our experiences can become too intellectual, too reliant on the imagination, or on the past. Being in nature means you re-connect with the idea of cycles, and you become less hard on yourself – you see that a creative life will have seasons.

3. Keep a journal. Writing – all creativity – is an ever-changing process, and there is something valuable to be gained by engaging with the process itself. I am a huge exponent of keeping journals, and have one with me at all times. If you are not writing, ask yourself why, and write down all the reasons in a journal. Write down the feelings you have when you are not writing, and the feelings you have when you are.

4. Set yourself a stupid goal. When I started meeting with my writing group I told them I would have my novel finished in 90 days. Of course, that didn’t happen – not even close. But guess what? I wrote way more in that 90 days than I ever would have had I just kept telling people I was thinking about writing a novel. And so often I was thinking: “What I am writing is crap. I have no idea how to write a novel. I am just going to stop here and start a tree lopping business.” But I kept going and now I have something substantial that I can think of as, kind of, a novel.

5. Know why it is you want to write.  Why are you doing this? Why do you want to write and send that writing out into the world? There are no invalid answers here. But you do need to keep it in sight. This is what will drag you back to your focus and what will help you keep  going. My own personal guide in all this is is Elinor Glyn, a woman who found sensational success in the 1920s and 30s writing romance novels and later screenplays for Hollywood. I want my life to be like hers, being photographed draped in extravagant Persian cats.

6. Narrow it down. It really, really helps if you can narrow down your focus. I know you’re brilliant and filled with a million ideas and possibilities, and so does your mum. But the rest of the world doesn’t really care. they're only interested in what you actually produce. Finding one thing to concentrate on and finish might seem dull, but it can have an enormous impact on your confidence and your momentum. I started going places when I could say, once and for all,  that I was finishing something.

7. Open yourself up to your creativity and say "yes" more often. Like my friend, the immensely creative and productive Alana Fairchild, who produces beautiful things all the year round and has a great audience for them. So many self-help books and writing guides tell you to be jealous of your time and learn to say "No." I say the exact opposite. You never know what is coming your way. Give your creative impulse freedom and be brave about your own talent.

8. Establish some rituals around writing. Create your own writing soundtrack. Could a particular project have its own smell from incense, perfume or essential oils? Its own tea? Begin some Pavlovian responses by creating actions and things which remind you to write, even if you don't really want to.

9. Go on a writing retreat. I can’t stress the importance of tearing yourself away from your usual routines and facing up to your own writing realities enough. I went away on two writing retreats in the Himalayas with Jan Cornall and Writer's Journey and it really helped me re-think myself and what I wanted to do with my writing life. Now, I understand that a month in Bhutan might not be realistically achievable for you right now. But please consider what is, and how you can get away to be by yourself, or with other writers.

10. Write in those micro-moments. One of the lessons I learned on retreat is to take advantage of those micro-moments – another reason, incidentally, to always have a journal and pen with me. Many believe that we must do our writing in big chunks, devoting whole days or even weeks at a time to a project. Until then, we tell ourselves, it’s not worth starting. BUT IT IS!!! While away I found it hard to write for  more than 15 or 20 minutes at a time. And even then, I could not follow on from what I had been writing previously. I was just capturing fragments – and to be honest they were dazzling fragments. I had a fair idea of where they belonged, and it wouldn’t be hard to find a place for them.

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